A Baltimore Toyland From Yesteryear

By Mary K. Feeney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 8, 2006

Who could blame Ralphie Parker for being disappointed? The charming hero of the film "A Christmas Story" was devoted to the "Little Orphan Annie" radio show, and one day his long-awaited "Annie" decoder pin arrived in the mail. The secret message -- "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine" -- turned out to be, in his words, "a crummy commercial."

In the 1930s and '40s, thousands of young radio fans were unraveling the mysteries of decoder pins. But how many people kept them? Who was prescient enough to save a "Get Smart" lunchbox, a "Winky Dink and You" TV screen or a "Howdy Doody" record player?

A new museum in Baltimore, which is well-suited for a family holiday outing, has all those things and more. Geppi's Entertainment Museum, which opened in September, showcases about 7,000 pop-culture artifacts, from rare comic books to the prototype for the first G.I. Joe.

Just a very long baseball throw from Camden Yards in the historic Camden train station, Baltimore businessman Stephen A. Geppi has created the 17,000-square-foot Wonkaland of toys. Geppi owns Baltimore magazine, along with other businesses, including the world's largest distributor of English-language comics.

Geppi (pronounced "JEH-pee"), who grew up in Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood, learned to read at age 5 using comic books from corner stores. The museum, he says, has been a 30-year dream, and he often hears that visitors are overwhelmed by the depth and quality of the collection.

"I've had the same reaction from people of all ages, 8 to 80. Selfishly, I knew it would be good, but I didn't think it would recall everybody's childhood," said Geppi, 56, who has six children, including a 35-year-old daughter who works for the museum.

One recent Saturday, families roamed the high-ceilinged galleries, the adults reminiscing about childhood toys and their kids discovering them for the first time.

Doris Everhart of Atlanta, visiting with her son, Luke James, said her preteen son loved the museum's Spider-Man toys but also liked seeing toys she played with as a girl.

"The Barbie doll, the Ken doll. I gave mine away," Everhart said with a note of regret.

With Geppi's comic-book connections, a display of notable titles -- including the first "Superman" -- is no surprise. But this is more like a shrine.

The vibrantly drawn covers, behind glass in the exhibit "A Story in Four Colors," transform the room into a shining jewel box of superheroes, ghouls and campus cuties. A middle-aged man stared at the array and started to laugh to himself. "There are some [comic books] here I haven't ever seen!" he said in amazement.

Although the comic books can't be physically handled, the museum offers two interactive screens -- including an oversize one with nine large overhead panels -- that offer a page-by-page look at selected comic books of the past. Even the tacky black-and-white ads on the inside covers are there, with ads for X-ray glasses and help for skinny guys who need muscles.

Rusty Owens of Hanover, Md., visiting with his wife, Heather, and their two children, Trent, 10, and Graham, 7, was in his element. "I'm a comic book geek, so this is heaven. I'll come back here -- alone."

"I don't know if we'll go home or not," Heather Owens said. "We should have brought sleeping bags."

For children, the museum combines an American history lesson with the realm of leisure delights. For hands-on exploring, they can use the touch screens or play a computerized treasure-hunt game.

Exhibits are organized chronologically with timelines that trace the country's history through pop culture and its iconic characters. The first covers 1776 to 1894, when children played with simple toys such as dolls, boats and trains. In one corner is a glimmering group of marbles, with odd names such as "lutzes," "clams" and "onionskins." A collection of mechanical banks is mounted under glass, but most can be operated virtually through a computer touch screen. The center of the room is populated by Brownies, the elflike creatures created in 1883 by writer-artist Palmer Fox. The Brownies, depicted in various occupations and nationalities, were made into dolls and other merchandise and set the stage for character-based licensed merchandise such as Mickey Mouse and Scooby-Doo.

The "Extra! Extra!" gallery, covering 1895 to 1927, traces the popularity of newspaper comics, from the "Yellow Kid" to "Buster Brown," and the rise of radio and movies and the character toys they produced. Framed on the walls are full-size newspaper comics pages featuring "Smokey Stover," "The Katzenjammer Kids," "Krazy Kat" and others from the golden age of newspaper comics. The era also led to a national fascination with automobiles, airplanes and passenger ships, reflected in the pristine playthings seen here.

"When Heroes Unite" covers the years of the Depression through World War II, when the nation found escape through entertainment in theaters, the radio and comic books. Food manufacturers of the time focused their radio marketing efforts on kids, with product-themed club memberships offering decoder pins, badges and other premiums. Some were patriotic: A Little Orphan Annie Altascope Ring, now quite rare, supposedly gauged the altitude of aircraft.

The postwar decades have their own galleries, with objects representing popular television shows, movies, music groups and national figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys. Here is where you'll find a Mouseketeer costume (once worn by Jay-Jay Solari), an MC Hammer doll and all permutations of the Barbie, "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" empires.

The objects on display show how toys have evolved with children's interests, and with changing events and technology. "It's a hands-on museum, but also a great educational place," said Wendy Kelman, the museum's executive director, citing one example: "We've had children's groups come through, and they didn't know what [phonograph] records are." They asked, " 'Why are the covers so big?' "

GEPPI'S ENTERTAINMENT MUSEUM 301 W. Camden St., Baltimore. 410-625-7060.http://www.geppismuseum.com. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 to 5 November to March; open daily 10 to 6 April to October. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. $10; seniors 55 and older $9; students ages 3 to 18 $7; ages 3 and younger free.

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